As Penny Simkin has frequently noted: “We can’t control labor, whether it’s hard; that’s a leap of faith. But we can always control how we care for [the mother]” 
In 2001 and in 2004, I attended the births of two of my dear friend’s children in the same hospital in a mid-sized Midwestern city. I was not a childbirth educator or doula at this time, but was there in the capacity of friend and “witness.” Both births were intervention-heavy and not what I would call ideal, natural births; but the feelings were vastly different, which made all the difference.
One had an atmosphere of respect, caring and trust; the other had a “climate of doubt” throughout. The difference was a certified nurse-midwife (CNM). My commitment to homebirth midwifery often leads me to forget what a profound and true difference a caring CNM can make in a hospital birth. All the other hospital procedures can be present, but the care factor a CNM provides can transform a woman’s experience from powerless to powerful. Sometimes I forget how CNMs are poised to bridge the gap between home and hospital effectively. The US needs lots of them (not as subordinate “junior obstetricians”—but as expert guardians of normal birth in a hospital setting).
The details were similar in each birth. The babies were both almost 9 lb; a doula was present (same doula in both births); and the mother labored with an IV, spent a large portion of the labor in bed and had internal fetal monitoring. In the first birth (with the CNM), the mother even had several hours of Pitocin augmentation; in the second, with the obstetrician, she had no Pitocin until third stage. With each birth, the mother also had an extensive tear and long repair (a third-degree with the CNM, a second-degree with the obstetrician).
However, some things were very different.
When the mother said, “Can I have a birth ball?” the CNM said, “Yes,” and the obstetrician said, “Not until the baby has been monitored.” And then, “The baby doesn’t like that; you need to get back into bed.”
When the mother’s confidence waned, the CNM said, “You can do it. You are.” The obstetrician said, “I don’t think this baby is moving down.”
When the mother said, “This is taking such a long time,” the CNM said, “I know. It is taking for-freaking-ever!” and everyone laughed (including the laboring mother). The obstetrician said, “I think we should consider a c-section based on your history. The baby is not moving down.”
The CNM said, “You have such strong muscles in your legs and bottom, do you exercise a lot? I think because you are so strong, you’re holding a lot of tension here. Try to let it go.” The obstetrician ironed the perineum until the mother screamed with pain.
The CNM waited. The obstetrician did another internal check.
In both, a baby was eventually born (the first after four hours of pushing, the second after a little over an hour). A strong, healthy baby. Vaginally and without pain medications. After the first birth—though she would have done some things differently—my friend felt triumphant, empowered, powerful, strong, capable, happy and proud.
After the second birth she felt abused, disappointed, ashamed, guilty, angry, assaulted, diminished, wounded and scarred.
I believe the CNM’s personality, attitude and basic belief that vaginal birth would work was the critical difference between these two experiences. These births dramatically, viscerally illustrated for me that no matter what else is happening around the birthing woman, we can control how we care for her.
Endnote: My friend went on to have her third baby at home in 2008. She pushed this baby out in fifteen minutes, with no tear, and she shone with her power.
Molly Remer, MSW, ICCE, CCCE is a certified birth educator, writer, and activist who lives with her husband and children in central Missouri. She is the editor of the Friends of Missouri Midwives newsletter, a breastfeeding counselor, a professor of human services, and a doctoral student in women’s spirituality. She blogs about birth, motherhood, and women’s issues at https://talkbirth.me/posts.
 Looking to nature, doula Penny Simkin practices the art of delivery, in The Seattle Times, Pacific Northwest Cover Story. Originally published March 23, 2008. Accessed April 27, 2009. http://seattletimes.nwsource.com/html/pacificnw/2004299467_pacificpenny23.html.
This is a preprint of A Tale of Two Births, an article by Molly Remer, MSW, ICCE, published in Midwifery Today, Issue 91, Autumn 2009. Copyright © 2009 Midwifery Today. Midwifery Today’s website is located at: http://www.midwiferytoday.com/